Sunday, June 24, 2012



Director: Steve James
Filmmakers: Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx

In 1994, the movie that made most critics top ten lists wasn’t “Pulp Fiction,” “Forrest Gump,” or “The Shawshank Redemption”. Instead, many of them chose as their top film, the landmark documentary “Hoop Dreams.” Director Steve James started with what he thought was an idea for a small half-hour PBS documentary about the recruiting of Middle School inner-city kids to play basketball at the prestigious St. Joseph High School in Chicago. The school was known for sending scouts and finding talented Chicago kids for their basketball program, most notably, the now-NBA Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas. Instead, James, Gilbert and Marx shot for five years as they followed the two kids from an invitational camp to the end of their High School careers. The two kids are Arthur Agee and William Gates, and nobody had any idea of the richness of the lives they would soon be following. Gates is seen early on as talented, already playing on Varsity as a Freshman, and getting comparisons to Isiah before the year is even out. The younger brother of Curtis Gates, a former Chicago High School legend who was deemed uncoachable and couldn’t finish college, Gates is constantly in his younger brother’s shadow. He’s sponsored by the President of the Encyclopedia Britannica, eventually getting him and his brother temporary work there, while he struggles to get over that barrier and into the all-state tournament. Arthur Agee plays on the Freshman team at St. Joseph, but his tuition gets raised the next year, and since he isn’t benefitted by having a sponsor, he is forced to go back to Marshall, the inner-city school in his neighborhood, right around the time his father leaves the family and goes to jail and rehab for his cocaine overdose. What I have just described is barely setup. It’s barely a beginning. It’s frankly just a fairly tangible understandable place to begin. The story of these kids and their families is surprising and unpredictable, ironic and oftentimes startling. There’s a point in the movie where Arthur’s mother is talking to the camera. Her husband has left and come back, one of many changing dynamics of her house, the lights are out at their house, and after he’s turned 18, despite still being in High School, her welfare has been cut because Arthur, now being an adult, means he isn’t eligible to be listed. She asks the filmmakers if they ever wonder how she lives on $268/month? We’ve been wondering that for some time, especially after they owe tuition to St. Joseph that if they don’t pay, Arthur won’t graduate because they won’t release his grades towards graduation. William gets a severe knee injury during his sophomore year, and while he struggles to recover, and still remains heavily recruited, the injury changes him. Not simply ability-wise, but personally. And to everyone’s surprise, he now suddenly has a kid. There are a lot of surprises in the film. Many times information isn’t revealed ‘til way later in the movie. Why? According to the Director Steve James on the DVD commentary track, it’s ‘cause the filmmakers didn’t have the information until then. There’s a surprisingly natural way information and events become revealed. The movie was named by both Siskel & Ebert as the Best Movie of the Year, (Ebert eventually named it Best Film of the 1990s) but to a lot of people’s surprise, the film wasn’t nominated for Best Documentary Oscar, which had long since been noted for giving the Award to some odd and surprisingly boring selections, and had particularly avoided popular films. “Hoop Dreams” did receive a Best Editing Nomination, a extreme rarity for a documentary, which didn’t seem to coincide with some reports from the committee members that the movie at almost three hours was too long. With Siskel & Ebert leading the protests, an Entertainment Weekly investigative article of the Documentary Selection committee finally revealed that members had purposefully given “Hoop Dreams,” the lowest possible ratings after hearing that it might win. It led to the complete overhaul of the Documentary selection category. (After James’s latest film “The Interrupters,” as well as several other critically-acclaimed films didn’t even make the short list last year, there’s been more call for revisiting the Documentary rules now.) I can assure you, the list of movies that cause a reworking of the way the Oscars are handed out are small, and few are as good as “Hoop Dreams.” Forget that it’s a long documentary, it’s one of the most brilliant portrayals of American life every recorded on film, and have made young Arthur Agee and William Gates, two of the cinema’s greatest characters.

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